P-47 with invasion stripes

P-47 with invasion stripes (Joseph Walk)

Our family attended an air show at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson a few years ago. On display were many aircraft from World War II including a Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. This particular aircraft had invasion stripes painted on the empennage (tail assembly) and on both wing roots. I had seen photos of other airplanes sporting the unique stripes and I wondered what was behind the unusual paint scheme. 

This particular Thunderbolt had the WWII roundel without the red stripes of later years which meant the owner was very meticulous in creating an accurate replica from 1944. These stripes would have been very familiar to Allied Forces during the Normandy invasion nearly 80 years ago. 

The five invasion stripes were standardized. They were white-black-white-black-white of equal width on both wings (top and bottom) and on the fuselage. Each of the five bands was 18 to 24 inches in width, depending on the size of the aircraft so they would have been easily seen which, of course, was the point. The idea was that these distinctive stripes painted on Allied aircraft would be readily recognized by anti-aircraft units, thus reducing chances of attack by friendly fire. After all, there would be over 14,000 sorties of combat airplanes and paratroop-laden gliders involved in the first days of the invasion, so a simple and effective way was needed to quickly identify aircraft. 

P-47 with invasion stripes

P-47 with invasion stripes ()

British Air Chief Marshall Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Air Force, approved the idea of adding the identifying stripes in May of 1944, just a few weeks before the June 6th invasion of the Normandy beaches. Secrecy demanded that the new markings were not to be added to aircraft too soon. Therefore, orders decreed that the 3rd and 4th of June, 1944 would be the designated days to actually paint black-and-white bands on aircraft.

Most of the time, ground crews were tasked to paint the stripes and, with very little time to do it, some paint jobs were not very orderly. But even crudely applied paint jobs were identifiable, and they worked! 

Not all Allied airplanes wore the new paint jobs. Troop carriers, pursuit, air-sea rescue, reconnaissance, twin-engine medium and light bomber units all had stripes applied. However, heavy four-engine bombers of the famous U.S. 8th Air Force and RAF Bomber Command did not. This included B-24s, B-17s, and Lancasters. The rationale was that large night-flying Allied bombers had little chance of being misidentified as the Luftwaffe had few heavy bombers left. If an airplane flew over Allied anti-aircraft defenses, that aircraft had better have white and black stripes or be a large and loud bomber lest they face the very real threat of Allied anti-aircraft fire. 

Invasion stripes didn’t last long. A month after D-Day, the stripes were ordered removed from the upper surface of wings to make it harder to spot on the ground while parked or while near the earth while flying low. Once air superiority was attained over France, the bands were removed completely.

Interestingly, invasion stripes re-emerged during the Korean conflict. F-84 Sabres of the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing were deployed to Korea in 1950 and squadrons replaced their familiar yellow fuselage band with alternating black and white stripes. 

So, if you visit a museum and see airplanes with large black and white stripes on wings and fuselages, you can be sure it was a history-making aircraft. Now you know the story behind a few strokes of paint that saved lives and helped secure a successful air, sea and land invasion in France 80 years ago.

Republic P-47 Thunderbolt with invasion stripes

Republic P-47 Thunderbolt with invasion stripes (Joseph Walk)

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